Israeli diplomatic sources disclosed to Al-Monitor that during a meeting in Paris between Israeli and French foreign ministers in mid-February, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman thanked his French colleague, not for the first time, for France’s action in Mali and the Central African Republic. Were it not for the involvement of the French military, he said, radical Islam would have already reached “Israel’s doorstep.”
Once this meeting at the French Foreign Ministry was concluded, the two ministers came out to greet the photographers. They didn’t hold a real news conference, and only granted statements to the media. Liberman usually spares his words when making public appearances of this sort outside of Israel. This time, however, beyond the banal declarations regarding the good relations between the two countries, Liberman added that in his conversation with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, he raised the topic of cooperation between Jerusalem and Paris on Africa. Liberman's declaration adds to a previous statement he made in January at the annual conference of Israeli heads of mission in Jerusalem regarding the importance of Africa to Israel’s foreign relations.
Liberman's short reference to Africa provoked no reaction in the Israeli press. The ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic between Christian militias and Muslim insurgents raises little interest in Israel. But at the top ranks of the Foreign Ministry and Israeli defense agencies, calls are increasing for a deeper examination of the civil war in the Central African Republic, as well as those in other regions in Africa. Israel, so it is claimed, must thoroughly study the strengthening of radical Islam throughout Africa — from Sudan in the East, through Chad, Niger and Nigeria in the middle of the continent, to Mali and Mauritania in the West.
In certain respects, it could be said that radical Islamic terrorism in Africa is already knocking on Israel’s southern doors — at the border with Egypt and along the Gaza Strip. The international media have reported in the past about the flow of weapons from Libya to other African nations during the revolution there three years ago. Large amounts of weapons were accumulated by radical Muslim fighters cultivated by Moammar Gadhafi. When they lost their livelihood in Libya, these fighters returned to their homelands in Mauritania, Mali, Chad and other nations in the Sahel. The war in Mali was to a great extent a direct continuation of the revolution in Libya. The Tuareg tribe and other radical Muslim fighters escaped or returned to Mali, having been trained, organized and, above all, armed to the teeth. Now it turns out that part of the Gadhafi regime’s weaponry also crossed Libya’s border to the east, to Egypt, and from there to terror cells operating in Sinai. These cells operate essentially against the new Egyptian regime, but this does not exclude terror attacks on Israel's border.
However, the growing concern in Israel touches on a bigger issue — the widening phenomenon of the consolidation of radical Islam in Africa and the strengthening ties among various terror organizations throughout the continent. Terror organizations connected to al-Qaeda, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as the Boko Haram and al-Shabab organizations, are active in many nations on the continent. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is active in Algeria, Tunisia and the Cameroon region. Al-Shabaab works mostly in Somalia, but also in Kenya. Boko Haram is active in Nigeria. Some of the terror organizations active in Africa are interested in establishing a Muslim state on the basis of Sharia law in their country, but others have adopted the worldview of global jihad, which strives to impose Islam all over the world and to fight the “foreigners” to total destruction— a crossing-borders jihad.
In February 2012, US Army Gen. Carter Ham warned of increased collaboration between terror groups in North Africa, Nigeria and Somalia. At the time, the leader of al-Shabab pledged allegiance to a branch of al-Qaeda in North Africa. Washington regarded this announcement as representing the transition phenomenon in Africa from "national" terror to "global" terror. In view of the growing strength of al-Qaeda and its extensions throughout Africa, Israel might find itself in the same line of fire as the United States. The sight of the terror organizations might focus on Israeli or Jewish targets on African soil, or via infiltration into Israel through the Egypt or Gaza borders. Jerusalem fears that if the phenomenon of ''unification'' increases, terror cells in the Sinai and the Gaza strip might join this emerging network. The security fence erected by Israel along its southern border now prevents African immigrants from setting foot on its soil. It is also expected to defend Israel against terror elements operating from there.
Another trend that should worry Israel is Iran’s involvement with and support of some of these terror organizations. Thus, for example, authorities in Nigeria suspect that an Islamic terror cell that was exposed a year ago in the country received financial support from Tehran. Iran is working on the covert level, but also on the overt level, and a few years ago it adopted a policy of close ties with the nations of the continent. The former Iranian foreign minister visited Africa frequently, mostly South Africa and Zimbabwe, and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also visited the continent. The current Iranian regime is continuing on a similar line, at least outwardly: the current foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also visited South Africa in the last year. Iranian aid is involved in agricultural and development initiatives in countries such as Senegal, Nigeria and Sudan, and various Iranian financial institutions invest in projects in the fields of media and transportation throughout the continent. Israeli diplomats warn that a widespread Iranian presence in Africa might encourage the opening of additional terror financing channels, with African terror organizations adopting Iran’s enemy as its targets.
As mentioned above, American intelligence is investing in efforts to learn about the spread of radical Islam in Africa, but Washington hasn’t formed a comprehensive policy regarding the fight against these terror groups. Two years ago in Mali, Paris led the struggle against the radical Islamic rebels virtually alone. The international community mostly remained outside of the game, aiding with logistics and declarations. Up to now, tiny Israel has rejected participation in UN peacekeeping forces throughout the world. It didn’t send soldiers to Mali and will not send soldiers to the Central African Republic. From the standpoint of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Israel is unable and can’t allow itself to lend a hand militarily, but it can be involved in “development diplomacy” in Africa. In the West, like in Africa itself, it is agreed that the military effort to defeat Islamic terrorism must be accompanied by investments and development programs, because it is poverty that in many cases opens the doors of the local populations to the terrorists.
In February 2012, Israel and France signed a cooperation agreement regarding development aid for various nations in Africa. Israel has signed a similar agreement with the United States and also participates in joint projects with Germany, Holland and Italy, mostly in the fields of agriculture, fishery and water. These agreements allow Israel to develop initiatives in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and many other countries in southern Africa, using Israeli knowledge and technology, with European or American funding. Liberman’s visit to France and Jerusalem’s new “pro-African” policy have enabled that agreement with Paris to be brought out to air and to be given real substance. An initial Israeli-French-Cameroonian project is already being prepared. In Jerusalem, it is hoped that it will open new opportunities in Francophone Africa.
Alongside the talks of representatives of the international cooperation department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry with their French colleagues, the Foreign Ministry conducted a first-of-its-kind diplomatic dialogue with the French Foreign Ministry regarding Africa. Similar talks were held a few months ago with Russian representatives and, just after the dialogue with Paris, contacts were made on the issue with Portugal. Israeli emissaries came to these meetings to hear from their colleagues about their outlook on the political situation in Africa today. Israeli diplomats who participated in the talks told Al-Monitor that the French and Russians were very interested in the Israeli analysis of the spread of radical Islam in Africa, as well as in the intelligence that Israelis have succeeded in gathering, whether through embassies in “sensitive” areas such as Eritrea, South Sudan and Nigeria or through “other means.”
Elevating Africa to a higher place in Israel’s foreign relations priorities will enable Israeli security and other agencies to dedicate greater resources, learning more about the new African political order and the power struggle between supporters of democracy and Islamic terror organizations.